Whānau of sawmill workers poisoned by chemicals still fight for recognition

By Jessica Tyson

Over the weekend a panel of independent commissioners heard oral testimonies about the impact that chemicals have had on people’s health and the environment in Aotearoa.

The purpose of the online inquiry was so that commissioners could listen to the testimonies to create a report with recommendations for the government.

One of the testimonies was made by Marama Harawira-Cook from advocacy group Sawmill Workers Against Poisons (SWAP).

Her father, Joseph Harawira, of Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Te Rangi, worked at the Whakatāne sawmill for 29 years. At that time, the preservative used on the timber there was Pentachlorophenol (PCP) which was contaminated with dioxin and furan.

Joseph retired due to ill health caused by the effects of the toxin poisons on his body and suffered paralysis by the 1990s. Many other workers at the mill suffered similar health conditions, such as fatigue, depression, respiratory problems, heart and liver disease, and high levels of cancer.

“There are a lot that are still suffering, still have very mamae bodies and now, of cours,e you can’t dismiss that fact that there’s a lot of mental wellness, wellbeing that needs to be addressed,” Marama told Radio Waatea.

Marama said her father died in 2017 and spent the last 35 years of his life exposing the serious health risks of dioxin, highlighting the health problems of the sawmill workers. He was also the spokesperson for SWAP.

“The kaupapa is very much still active because there is still a lot of work that still needs to be done to address some of the ongoing issues that have continued since dad’s time there,” says Marama.

She says there are even more people who have joined SWAP which shows an intergenerational process with children and daughters, like herself, coming into the fold to help support the kaupapa.

"To help drive some of those unresolved issues because at the end of the day we want to make sure that we get it right for our children, but as well for our mokopuna. We don’t want them to have to go down the same road in the next 30 or so years."

Ngā Ringa Raupā - Joe Harawira 2015

Te Uiuinga a te Tāngata, The People’s Inquiry, member Stephanie McKee says she had been working for nearly two years to bring together all the people involved in the People’s Inquiry.

She says in these pandemic times there is even more urgency to protect the health of the soils, water and air, as well as human health.

“The poison-industrial complex is a network of corporations, government bodies and even charitable trusts who profit from, or promote, the use of synthetic toxins in almost every sector of New Zealand society: agriculture, horticulture, conservation, plantation forestry and weed management, she says,

"After pressure from our school children climate activists, the government has declared a climate emergency. We also need to acknowledge that Aotearoa is suffering from a contamination emergency. All these toxins derive from the fossil-fuel industry. ”

The commissioners involved included Dr Meriel Watts, Dr Tom Kerms, Hema Wihongi and Professor Catherine Iorns. Their knowledge base includes pesticide science, organics, sustainable alternatives, human rights impact assessments, freshwater ecology, mātauranga Māori, Tiriti o Waitangi flora and fauna inquiry, environmental law, indigenous rights and statutory interpretation, including a focus on pesticides.

“We are deeply grateful to our amazing commissioners for giving their time gratis to hear all the submissions,” says McKee.

Te Ao has reached out to Te Uiuinga a te Tāngata for more information about the recommendations for the report and are awaiting a reply. More to come.